The first words uttered on-screen in Gold of Bengal, even before the opening credits, are by young French engineer Corentin de Chatel: “They’ve laid an egg!”
A cynical reviewer could be excused for hoping this was not an unintentionally prophetic description of the filmmakers’ efforts.
Happily, this is not the case, although the primary value of this hour-long documentary screening at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival lies more in the realm of voyeuristic entertainment than scientific enlightenment.
The reason for de Chatel’s joy becomes clear when you realize he has been waiting six months for a revolving cast of semi-captive seagoing hens to produce even one fresh egg between them.
The impossibly young-looking de Chatel (probably just south of 30 but never appearing to be much more than 15) is aboard an experimental 6.5-metre sailboat christened Gold of Bengal. At the time of his "egg-citement", he has just spent the better part of 180 days participating in a venture with a dual purpose: to measure the seaworthiness of an alternative boat-building fibre (jute) and to test his ability to survive—on the boat, solo—for an extended period of time with few supplies, relying on his and a young support team’s low-tech improvisational ingenuity.
As his craft’s name suggests, he is plying the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the biggest bay on Earth at more than two million square kilometers. The fact that this part of the Indian Ocean boasts the longest beach in the world and many hundreds of uninhabited, palm-fringed tropical islands would seem to put this venture squarely in the territory of Thoreauvian idyll.
As with most such examples of wishful thinking, though, events—in this case resulting from poor weather, worse planning, and even human deceit—quickly put the lie to that notion.
This type of intimate tag-along documentary has only come into its own relatively recently, with the advent of light, versatile, and high-quality digital cameras (a shot in Gold of Bengal leaves one wondering about the director’s solitary status until one spies the thin kite string trailing out at the bottom of the screen).
Fans of wilderness reality-TV show Survivorman will be familiar with most of the simple yet tedious solo-filmmaking strategies employed here to deviate from an interminable POV perspective and obtain the long shots, establishing shots, etcetera, that keep such productions watchable.
De Chatel even manages to get in a few underwater scenes while hunting some fish dinners before some “helpful” local fishermen steal his speargun.
Where the amateur documentarist drops the ball is with some of the details about the people and organizations behind the years-long effort to develop an alternative market for jute fibre, the production of which delivers a livelihood to many millions of people in that part of the world and the demand for which is being severely reduced by modern plastics.
Also remiss is some serious explanation for the scientific and environmental aspects of the "experiments" being carried out, most of which seem, even to those with casual knowledge of ecological science, to have been pretty well worked out during the past few decades. And the fate of the team's highly anticipated floating potato crop would seem to have been obvious to even amateur gardeners.
In the end, though, Gold of Bengal delivers a diverting and thoughtful account of an earnestly philanthropic mission.
And if its scientific rigour isn’t quite as deep as the waters of the gorgeous bay upon which it is filmed, then so what?
Gold of Bengal screens at the Cinematheque on Monday, February 15, at 7:30 p.m.